A "class warrior" stance among elements of the higher education unions has produced a pay claim that is "an irrelevance" in the context of likely funding cuts in the sector, a vice-chancellor has argued.
Steve Chapman, vice-chancellor and principal of Heriot-Watt University, was speaking at a roundtable discussion on sustainability at the Universities Human Resources conference in Leicester last week.
He said that the forthcoming cuts would be the first genuine cash reductions for the public sector since 1947, adding: "A situation where you have a cash cut and then you have a pay request for 4 per cent - it's just an irrelevance. It's not even worth talking about."
Higher education had "many intelligent people working in it - many of those are in unions", Professor Chapman said. But he added that although it was possible to communicate with individual members and committees at institutional level, relationships were more difficult with other sections of the unions.
He was critical of what he described as "the class warrior side of things", and in particular the mentality of "I want my 4 per cent".
Professor Chapman asserted that universities should communicate with their staff to explain the scale of the coming cuts in higher education funding, and the implications for institutions' budgets.
He said that solutions in the private sector have included deals to defer pay and benefits in order to avoid job losses.
"The commercial sector has already gone through its crisis," he said. "We've just delayed ours by two years and now we are facing it."
Professor Chapman suggested that institutions could begin to move away from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) to negotiate local pay deals. At present, nearly all higher education institutions negotiate a national deal on pay for most staff through Ucea.
"Maybe as things get worse, universities will break (from Ucea)," Professor Chapman said.
He also warned of the potential dangers to the sector from the increasing costs of its pension schemes - a topical point given the ongoing review of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
Of institutions' pensions deficits, he said: "If you put it on your bottom line, you would be frightened. Any company or organisation would be petrified."
He added that the pensions situation "has got to change and the change has got to be radical".